Last Wednesday, Feb. 19, former space hero and space walker Dale Gardner died suddenly when an aneurysm took his life. He was 65. Born in Minnesota, Gardner studied Engineering Physics at the University of Illinois, earning his BSc. Directly upon graduating, Gardner joined the US Navy and was sent to Aviation Officer School in Pensacola, Florida. He received his wings in 1971 after being selected his class’ most promising naval officer. Gardner was part of the first F-14 Tomcat flight, and was assigned to the F-14’s first operational VF-1 squadron at the Naval Air Station in Miramar, San Diego. He was deployed on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and was next assigned to the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron VX-4. With all of this experience under his belt, Gardner was selected by NASA in January 1978 as an astronaut candidate.
After five years of training, Gardner was chosen to be part of the Space Shuttle Challenger’s 1983 STS-8 mission. The following year he was aboard the Discovery on mission STS-51A. The latter was Dale Gardner’s last space voyage, but not before he took a walk that would mark him a hero.
During the eight-day mission in November of 1984, Gardner and the team were to launch two satellites into space and retrieve two others that had been launched unsuccessfully and were not in their proper orbit. On the fifth day of the mission, Gardner’s colleague Joe Allen went out in his MMU, or Manned Maneuvering Unit, and retrieved one of the satellites that was to be brought back to Earth for resale. He told his teammates afterwards that it had been difficult because of the angle of the sun and how hard it had been for him to see. Gardner had the idea to approach the second satellite, Westar, from a different direction two days later, so that he would be in the satellite’s shadow and would not have the same issue with the sun. The second satellite was successfully retrieved, and hero Dale Gardner was photographed taking his last walk in space with a “For Sale” sign in his hand as he posed in front of Westar. The hours from his two missions added up to 337 hours in space and 225 orbits of the Earth.
Gardner left NASA after the 1986 Challenger explosion which killed seven astronauts. He was reportedly frustrated with the long hiatus taken by NASA afterwards, when no one was sent into space. He returned to the Navy and worked in his field, holding the positions of Space Control Operations Deputy Chief at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Base, followed by Captain in the same division, and then he went to Petersen Air Force Base where he was Deputy Director, Space Control. Gardner retired from the Navy in 1990 and took a series of civilian jobs over 23 years: Program Manager for former aerospace company TRW’s Space and Defense sector, Colorado Springs; Manager of Northrup Grumman’s Colorado Spring’s location; and with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden Springs, Colorado, where he was Associate Director for Renewable Fuels Science and Technology. Former space hero Dale Gardner retired for the last time in Jan., 2013, to enjoy relaxing and taking long walks with his wife Sherry in the Colorado Mountains.
By Julie Mahfood